If you fancy sending some truly local Christmas cards this year, we have some mixed packs for sale. The two designs are Poole Rectory in the snow and a drawing of a snowy lamp-lit Harbour Office by Arthur Bell. Packs of 6 (3 of each design) are on sale in the Museum and also at society meetings at £3.25 per pack. We can also supply them by post with a small postage fee. Contact Jenny at: email@example.com
The year is 1947 and Poole with the rest of the country is still suffering in the aftermath of a devastating war. Bomb sites, beaches scarred from defences, rationing and austerity are still the order of the day. How can the Poole tourist department inject a little romance and glamour into their description of a war-battered resort? Here is their answer from the town guide of that year under the title of: ‘The Magic Carpet of the Sky Lanes. The Airport of Poole’
‘From out over the Channel drums the sustained note of high-revving air-motors and with the evening sun gilding her spread wings, a silver sky-clipper suddenly appears over the horizon to find at last her home on the quiet waters of the harbour after a journey across half the world: or with the first light of dawn she steals out mysteriously to link the old country with the antipodes making in a four day flight, the trip the old world wool-clippers were fortunate to sail in ninety.
For five years the British Overseas Airways Corporation have made Poole their terminus for long distance flights to and from South Africa, the Near and Far East. Kings, princes, potentates, statesmen and international war chiefs have come and gone and Poole harbour has been their first glimpse or last recollection of home. Where the Roman galley painfully beat in from the sea now the air-liner taxis with the foam washing her nacelle to silver. What wonder therefore that visitors and residents never seem to tire of watching these romantic and graceful air-ships from the high places of the harbour shore – watching them circle as they await the coming-in signal till they finally slant down to their berth and the clamouring motors are finally stilled: or in the darkling, the flare-path on the water making all the night a stream of fire.’
In 1759 it was reported in the Annual Register that Captain Nickleson of Poole, master of the Thomas and Elizabeth had been awarded the sum of £1,000 with costs in a court case against Captain Fortescue of the Prince Edward man of war. Acting for the impress service, Fortescue had taken so many men from Nickleson’s ship, as she sailed back to Poole that she foundered and was lost. This was just one of the more extreme incidents involving the infamous press gang and the port of Poole.
Legalised by a series of Acts from 1664 onwards, the press had been set up to help supply the Royal Navy with the large numbers of seamen it needed in time of war. Service in the navy was unpopular with many sailors because conditions were poor, discipline harsh and pay usually less than in the merchant service. There was also a policy of paying the men six months in arrears to discourage desertion. The answer of the authorities was a system of forced recruitment, targeting seafaring men between the ages of 18 and 55, (although non-seamen were sometimes taken). It was an offence in law to resist the press, which was therefore both hated and feared. For the merchants and ship-owners who stood to lose their best seamen it was a cause of great resentment.
Poole merchants were known to allow their men to disembark before the ships reached port or to hide them on their country estates to escape the press. Local magistrates sometimes delayed signing the Impressment Certificates authorising the press men to operate in the town, so as to give seamen a chance to make themselves scarce. They also issued men with ‘Protections’ or certificates of exemption on various pretexts. In the case of a ‘hot press’ however, these might count for little especially as the press gang members were recruited more for their brawn than for their finer scruples. In February 1762, it is reported that one unfortunate young man was carried off from the door of St. James’ church where he was about to be married.
The press also took men from merchant ships at sea, encircling the coast with their tenders and particularly targeting the main trade routes including those taken by the Newfoundland ships. Sometimes a ship might be dangerously depleted of crewmen. In 1741 the Joseph and Mary was so late in returning to Poole that she was given up for lost. When she finally limped into port it was discovered that she had lost 15 crew members to the press. It was in this context that the disastrous loss of the Thomas and Elizabeth occurred.
The actions of the press also affected the work of the Customs Service. In 1770 local customs officers reported to their superiors that, hearing there was ‘a very hot press’ in Poole, four men took a boat from the Elizabeth and went ashore to avoid being pressed before the ship entered quarantine. Later the same month, five men went on shore from the Nancy to escape the press and could not be traced. The ‘terror of falling into the hands of the impress officers’ seemed likely to undermine the quarantine system to the danger of the public. Customs men themselves were not exempt from being pressed. After one such incident in 1779, local customs men wrote to their headquarters: ‘We waited on Captain Scott to know whether he would release these men which he refused & said he would impress even Extra Tidesmen who was fit to serve in His Majesty’s Navy, that was not on actual duty, which if he persists in doing we are certain the Service must suffer greatly & therefore humbly pray Your Honours’ Speedy Directions what is to be done.’ In 1780 they reported that customs officers could not go into the country to search for run goods without an escort from the military.
Believing that the press was essential to the navy, the national authorities continued to support the system in spite of the antagonism raised in the country. It was this resentment that led to the worst incident of all involving Poole and the press. In 1794, the brig Maria belonging to leading merchant Benjamin Lester was returning to Poole from Newfoundland, having on board a number of passengers, mainly fishermen returning to their homes in Dorset. On the night of Saturday 29th November the brig’s master George Randall anchored in Studland Bay, where the pilot Thomas Allen came aboard around midnight. A tender of the impress service was in the area, commanded by Lieutenants John Glover and Nathaniel Phillips with Midshipman Arthur Oliver. Glover sent a boat loaded with men to board the brig but the passengers and crew of the Maria refused to allow the press on board and continued to resist when the tender also came alongside. The tender anchored near to the brig for the night.
The following day the Maria with Thomas Allen at the helm entered Poole Harbour, closely shadowed by the tender which had on board 20 soldiers besides the impress men. It was ‘between ‘Brownsea and Jack-in-the-Basket’ according to later testimony that Lieut. Phillips told the pilot to come to and anchor, but Thomas Allen replied that the passengers would not allow him to do so. Shortly after, the impress men and soldiers succeeded in getting on board. Captain Randall and some of the passengers including Captain Stephen Pack were confined below decks while the Lieutenants and their men impressed all they could find and took them on board the tender. Hearing shots, Captain Pack ‘broke out of the cabin where he had been confined and went on Deck & cry’d for Quarters & desir’d them to bring the boat for that many people were killed or wounded’. When Captain Randall reached the deck he found that Thomas Allen and two others, Peter Rake and John Housley had been shot dead and several others badly injured, two of whom later died.
That night Benjamin Lester noted in his diary that when the brig was brought to the Quay there was such an outcry that it was only through the presence of soldiers garrisoned in the town that the magistrates managed to save the Lieutenants from harm. Two inquests were held in the following week, the first at the Poole Arms on Thomas Allen and the other at the Antelope Inn on Rake and Housley. With feelings running high, verdicts of murder was found against Glover, Phillips and the Midshipman Oliver, who was alleged to have shot Housley through the head. Believing that the three could not receive a fair trial in Poole, the Admiralty intervened and they were tried instead at the Old Bailey. In June 1795 they were acquitted of the charges.
Following this tragedy, feelings must hardened even more against the press in Poole but there were times when even service in the navy was better than the alternatives on offer. In 1800, with famine in the countryside, young men flocked into Poole and were pressed in large numbers. Washed, cheaply clothed and given a knife, spoon, comb and a piece of soap each, they found themselves on board where they could at least be sure of avoiding starvation. Four years later in 1804, Captain Walbeoff and Lieutenant Osmer, with a midshipman and eight press gang men broke into the house of mariner William Trim to press him. Trim tried to escape, hitting the midshipman with a red hot poker, but was overpowered and disarmed. His sister going to his aid was also assaulted and when his father, a man of around 70, came rushing in, he was stabbed in the back and beaten. Following this incident an Admiralty inquiry was held into the conduct of the impress officers.
With no signs of an end to the long war with France, the demand for men to supply the navy was unrelenting. In 1805, the local impress men complained that the customs officers showed an ‘unjustifiable’ inclination to obstruct them in their duty. The customs officers were refusing to inform the press when a ship was released from quarantine and stood on their dignity when asked to explain: ‘We beg leave to observe that we are not aware of its being customary at any of the out-ports for the Office of Customs to give such information to the Office of the Impress Service’.
A couple of incidents involving Robert Gillet, landlord of the Lion and Lamb in Salisbury Street, were more farce than tragedy. On one occasion Lieutenant John Marshall of the impress service had pressed a seaman in the taproom of the inn. Gillet’s wife and daughter assaulted Marshall and then followed him out into the street shouting abuse. A crowd quickly gathered and Marshall escaped with difficulty. Another time an impress midshipman, Michael Ryan, was passing the inn when Gillet grabbed hold of a gig which was standing in the yard and tried to run Ryan down. According to the court report: ‘on being asked why he did it, defendant said “If you don’t like it you may kiss my arse” which he frequently repeated and used many other opprobrious and insulting expressions.’
For a long time the impressment system had been justified by the authorities on the grounds that it was supporting Britain’s freedom by helping to maintain naval supremacy. By the end of the Napoleonic wars the system was seen as clearly unjust and oppressive and was at last discontinued.
Main sources: Poole Custom House Letter Book / Hutchinson The Press Gang Afloat and Ashore / Beamish and others The Pride of Poole 1688-1851. / Poole archives – Coroner’s Inquests
In the 17th century, the journey from the cradle to the grave could often be a very short one as a browse through contemporary burial records reveals. In nine months during 1668-9, for instance, 47 of the 70 burials recorded at Poole St. James’ church, were of children. Childbirth, even if attended by an experienced midwife, was a dangerous time for infants and mothers because of poor sanitary conditions and lack of knowledge. Those who survived the trauma of birth were all too likely to succumb to one of the infectious diseases which regularly broke out, including measles, typhus, smallpox and plague. Outbreaks of the dreaded plague killed up to 150 people in Blandford and Bridport in 1626 and 500 in Salisbury in 1627. Woodbury Fair was cancelled for three years to avoid spreading the infection. In 1628, Shaftesbury suffered from an outbreak with only 20 fatalities but 10 years later, as many as 400 people may have died at Wimborne. In 1645 it was the turn of Poole when the plague struck in the middle of the Civil War and probably took about 118 lives (see the post ‘Epidemic!’ on this blog).
Those who survived into adulthood would rely mainly on folk remedies which every good housewife knew how to concoct. In the 17th century, some of these were collected and published in guides such as Gervase Markham’s ‘The English House-wife’, published in 1615. Many were based on common herbs like this cure for headache: For the Head-ach, you shall take of Rosewater, of the iuice of Camomile, of warme milke, of strong wine vinegar, of each two spoonful, mixe them together well upon a chafing dish of coals: then take a peece of drie rose cake and steepe it therein, and as soone as it hath drunke up the liquor and is thoroughly hot, take a couple of sound Nutmegs grated to a powder, and strew them upon the rose cake, then breaking it into two parts, bind it upon each side upon the temples of the head, so let the party lye down to rest, and the paine will in short space be taken from him.’ It was only in serious cases (and if they could afford it) that people turned to the apothecary, the physician or the surgeon.
At the beginning of the century, medicine was still based on the medieval theory of illness resulting from any imbalance in the four fluids or humours of the body, but some physicians began to challenge aspects of the theory, based on their observations. In 1628, William Harvey published a well-argued thesis proposing that blood circulates round the body, but it took many years for the idea to be generally accepted. Epidemics of infections diseases, including the plague, gave doctors the chance to study symptoms and the efficacy of remedies, and the Civil War provided many examples of trauma for surgeons to improve their techniques.
One of the most noted surgeons of the century was Richard Wiseman who became Sergeant Surgeon to King Charles II. As a young man, recently trained as a barber surgeon, he served on the Royalist side of the conflict and was present during the battle of Weymouth in 1644-5. In later life, he published several ‘Chirurgical Treatises’ dealing with many surgical procedures including some honed during the war. On treating gunshot wounds with fracture he advises ‘if the Wound be not large enough, make it so that you may the better pull out the extraneous bodies, whether Slug, Bullet, Rags, Splinters, or Shivers of Bones, so shall the Extension be made the easier and less subject to Inflammation . . . Whereas if the Wound be not so cleaned, these extraneous bodies, nay the smallest Shivers of Bone, will raise such disturbance as will render it incapable of Digestion . . . Make your Extension so soon as you may, and restore the Bones to their former place with what gentle dexterity and lenity you can.’
Also involved in the battle at Weymouth but on the Parliamentary side, was Thomas Sydenham, one of the Sydenham brothers of Wynford Eagle, Dorset. Although badly wounded, Thomas survived and went on to become a famous physician, his ‘Observationes Medicae’ being regarded as a standard text book. Among many other diseases, he wrote about the plague, basing his arguments on close observation of patients and treatment. He claimed that ‘an enquiry into the manner of curing diseases may proceed very successfully, tho’ we are ignorant of their causes, because the cure of most diseases is not effected by this kind of knowledge, but by a suitable and experienced method’. Today’s doctors would not agree with him but would probably approve his detailed observations as a basis for treatment.
For plague and pestilential fevers, he recommended moderate bleeding followed by the raising of a sweat in the patient for twenty four hours. Then he administered a sudorific (sweat inducing) bolus or pill: ‘Take of Venice treacle, half a dram; the electuary of the egg, a feruple; Gascoign’s powder, twelve grams; and the juice of the kermes enough to make the whole into a bolus; to be taken every six hours, drinking after it six spoonfuls of the following julep: take of the distill’d water of carduus benedictus, and compound scordium water, of each three ounces, treacle water, two ounces; syrop of cloves, an ounce: mix them together for a julep.’ Venice treacle was ‘theriac’, an ancient concoction regarded as a cure-all, an electuary was a medium to make medicine more palatable, Gascoign’s powder contained various powdered substances including pearls, and both cochineal and juice of kermes were red coloured dyes made from crushed insects. I haven’t managed to work out how much a feruple was! The refreshing julep was made of spiced and sweetened herbs, carduus benedictus (‘blessed thistle’) and scordium (water germander). After a further twenty four hours, the patient was given a purge made of an infusion of tamarinds, senna leaves, rhubarb, manna (from the manna ash) and syrup of roses. By this treatment, Sydenham claimed, ‘I recovered several persons who were seized with a pestilential fever . . . and did not lose a single patient after I began to use it.’
As a garrison town for the Parliament during the Civil War, Poole must have seen many injured soldiers requiring the attention of a surgeon. Although we know the names of several 17th century doctors practicing in Poole, there is very little information about their treatments and whether they would have been similar to those used by Wiseman and Sydenham. During the plague outbreak of 1645-6, the sick were isolated at Baiter in the town windmill and several purpose-built pest houses. Here they were attended by Dr. John Spence who was paid a salary of 30s (£1.50) a week by the town. From the accounts we know that he used pitch and tar to fumigate the houses and ordered a lot of vinegar, perhaps to wash the patients. He also obtained ‘cuill oyle’ and a box of drugs from Salisbury, but what they were and how they were used is not explained.
Those whose ailments were beyond the aid of medical treatment were advised to seek help from their faith. A letter of 1687 in the Poole archives from Dr. John Tillottson (Doctor of Divinity not Medicine) is an example. Having heard that his friend Mr. Nicholas Hunt of Canterbury was suffering from a fatal cancer, he wrote to console him and urge him to resign himself to God’s will: to renew your Repentance for all the Error and miscarriages of your Life and earnestly to beg God’s pardon & Forgiveness . . . to exercise Faith and Patience for a little while; and be of good Courage since you see Land; the Storm wch you are in will soon be over.’ In an age when religion was so central to people’s lives and disease would be seen as a punishment from God, faith could also be a consolation when science failed.
Pause in the middle of Falkland Square, level with the turning into Kingland Crescent, and you are probably standing on the line of Poole’s long-vanished medieval defences. Cutting across this area four hundred years ago was a ditch stretching from Holes Bay in the west to Parkstone Bay in the east, backed by the town walls. To the west near the site of the present railway station was the only landward entrance to the town, the ‘embattled gate of stone’ known as the towngate, reached by a drawbridge.
The defences were constructed in the 15th century following a grant from Henry VI in 1433 making Poole a Port of the Staple or customs port for Dorset. Permission for the Poole inhabitants to build defences was included in the grant: ‘The mayor and Burgesses of the said town of Pole propose (as we conceive) sufficiently to wall, embattle and fortify (through our succour and licence) the said town and port for the more safe keeping of merchandizes and other goods coming thither, and also for the fortifying of the places adjacent.’
There is no record of the process of constructing the defences but it must have been a major operation. The chosen line of the wall and ditch took advantage of the geography of the town, cutting across the narrow neck of land joining the Poole peninsular to the main land. Elsewhere the town was protected by the sea and mudflats. Why the towngate was built to the west rather than near the middle of the defences is not clear. Perhaps it was a case of choosing the highest and most solid piece of ground, but its location required the building of an access road from High Street known as Towngate Lane (later Towngate Street). There are several images of the towngate on old maps, showing it as a square castellated gate house flanked by two round towers. There are also many references to it in the archives, as for instance in the town accounts of 1524 when the two new posts and nearly 2 cwt of iron were needed to repair the gate or in 1645 when workmen were paid for mending the chain of the drawbridge. In contrast, the walls are only sketchily depicted and seldom mentioned in the records.
The earliest image comes from a map or bird’s eye view of the Dorset coast dating from 1539 when Henry VIII was planning a series of forts and beacons against attack from the continent (one of which was the blockhouse on Brownsea Island). Confusingly to our eyes, south is shown at the top of the map and an added complication is that some of the depicted fortifications were never actually built. The Poole section shows the towngate with what might be a stretch of wall to the west and a cluster of buildings behind to represent the town. Two circular gun platforms are also shown, one on the Quay and one at the end of the Hamworthy peninsular. We know from the records that a gun platform was built on the quay in 1524, decorated with carved and painted heraldic animals from the royal coat of arms. This platform or its successor may be the one shown on the map, but as space was tight on the Quay it would have probably been removed as soon as the invasion threat was over. The Hamworthy fortification was known as the bulwark and is mentioned in the archives into the 1600s.
Shortly after the map was drawn up, the antiquary John Leland visited Poole and observed its layout. He described the town being connected to the main land ‘by the space almost of a flite shot’ and mentioned the towngate and the ditch, but not the walls at the north end of town. Instead he claimed that ‘King Richard III began a pece of a Toun Waulle at one end of the Kay; and promised large thinges to the Town of Pole.’ This may refer to a section of wall behind the buildings on Thames Street which still exists. Dating from the late 15th century or the 16th century (depending on which authority you consult) this wall of coursed limestone rubble is about 3m high, 30m long and in places nearly 1m thick. It contains an arched doorway and for part of its length, a projecting castellated top supported by corbels. On the inside are stone steps leading up to a parapet. Whether this was a town wall or a rather over-sized property boundary and whether it was originally longer and was ever finished are among the many questions surrounding the structure. What is clear is that at one time the shingle came up to foot of the wall but over time the shore was reclaimed, leaving the wall high and (literally) dry. By 1609, an inventory of a house on Thames Street describes its two gardens, one within and one outside ‘the battled wall’. In other words, by this date the wall had lost its function as a property boundary, let alone anything as grand as a town wall.
In 1582, a legal settlement with the town’s brewers over taxes made a rare reference to the town walls, describing how Poole’s revenues ‘must of necessity be from time to time employed used and bestowed upon the necessary provision and maintenance of the said town the church the haven the quay the walls and other necessary offices . . .’ Around the same time another map of the harbour seems to show the town completely walled around, with a structure, presumably the towngate, at the northern end of town. The details cannot be taken literally, but the map-maker clearly wanted to show a fortified town. It is not until the early 17th century that maps begin to show the layout of the town with some accuracy for the first time and it is from these that we get most information about the defences and their location.
By the time of the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642, Poole’s defences like those of many towns must have seemed like a relic from the past. In changed times, however, they were about to come into their own. Poole had declared its support for Parliament and one of the first actions of the authorities was to make an order that ‘that a constant watch shalbe from henceforth kept for the preservation and the Defence of this towne, by the number of one watch man, one Rounder, and a gunner for the daye tyme att the towne gate, and six ordinary watchmen of the Comonalty, and two rounders for the night watch’. The inclusion of ‘rounders’ or roundsmen suggests a boundary which could be patrolled.
The following year, there was an attempt by the Royalists to take the town by treachery which casts more light on the war time defences. A Royalist Captain Thomas Phillips had been having secret meetings with Captain Francis Sydenham of the Poole garrison to persuade him to betray the town into Royalist hands. Sydenham pretended to accept but revealed the plot to Col. John Bingham, the Governor of Poole. Sydenham as officer of the watch was to blow a horn as a signal and then rush into the town, leaving the gates open for the Royalist troops to enter. On the chosen night the Royalists about 500 strong under the command of the Earl of Crawford approached the town in the darkness and hearing the signal, charged forward only to find the gate closed against them. Worse ‘before the gate was a halfe-moon, at the entrance of which there were chaines to be drawne up at pleasure; the earle with his horse filling the halfe-moon, the chaines were then drawn up, and the muskets and ordnance . . . gave fire upon those that came on, which caused all that were not slaine to throwe downe their armes and runne away.’ The earl barely escaped with his life and the Royalists lost valuable arms and about 50 horses, beside those killed, injured or taken prisoner.
Half moons were outworks, usually with two sides coming to a point and short flanks, used as a refuge for defenders outside the main fortifications or to protect a vulnerable spot such as a road or the entrance to a town. Where exactly the Poole half moon was and how it operated, we don’t know but it certainly served its purpose on this occasion. The following year, the town was again under attack when the Royalist Sir Thomas Aston defeated a detachment of Poole horse and chased them to the edge of town ‘where the Rebels’ cannon and small shot played thick upon him from the walls’, according to the Royalist newspaper, Mercurius Aulicus.
There is evidence from the archives for other fortifications used during the Civil War. One was a fort at Hamworthy said to be built from stone taken from the Hamworthy church. It was probably designed to prevent attackers coming down the peninsular and getting too close to the town. In 1645-6 the town accounts mention payments to 4 workmen ‘to unrig the fort at Ham for lading it, bringinge it out & pillinge it & for the cartinge of it all’. It was not entirely demolished because in November 1646, Thomas Smedmore of Hamworthy was awarded compensation of £12 a year for his ‘great losses by fortifications which were made upon his ground’, making it clear that these were still standing. Other defensive structures mentioned in the same accounts about which very little is known are ‘seaman’s battery’ and the ‘western works’, although the latter may be the same as the ‘western fort’ shown on a map of 100 years later near the western end of the ditch.
After the Civil War some of the defences like the half moon were probably removed fairly quickly while other structures gradually fell into disuse. In August 1653, the Council of State ordered towns to demolish their fortifications and ‘the town of Poole, Ham and all the works adjoining, to be immediately dismantled’. So the walls and the towngate were taken down after 200 years’ existence and the ditch was filled in or gradually silted up. In 1745, at the time of the second Jacobite rebellion, an attempt was made to re-excavate the ditch but this was discontinued after the town had spent around £300, according to the traveller Dr. Pococke.
The defences had gone but their ghostly imprint on the streets of Poole remained. Towngate Street continued as the main road leading out of town and 100 years after the wall and ditch had gone, High Street still came to a stop at the northern end with a ropeworks built across it. When the turnpike trust was set up, the Poole tollgate was built on the site of the old towngate where it remained for another 40 years. It was not until the 1830’s that High Street was extended into Longfleet and the toll gate was relocated there. The coming of the railway in 1874 reinstated a barrier more or less along the same line as the old defences, which remains today.
Over the years, reminders of the lost defences have unexpectedly surfaced. In 1835, workmen digging a well near the site of the wall found a skeleton with long hair still attached. Whether this was a victim of the Civil War or some other unfortunate individual, we don’t know. In the 20th century, shaped blocks were found in a garden in Rigler Road, Hamworthy, perhaps the foundations of the fort.
In the early 1970s it was still possible to race the old boundary line from Holes Bay in the west via the site of the gate at Towngate Street to the reclaimed area north of Pitwines. Later developments would sweep away most landmarks in the area. When the Towngate Bridge was being built in 1971, traces of the old town wall were discovered and some of the stonework was taken to Scaplen’s Court for display. An old boundary stone was also found nearby and mounted on one of the bridge supports with a modern explanatory plaque. At least the name of the bridge preserves the memory of the old towngate and as we sweep over the bridge today we can imagine the deadly fight in the darkness nearly four centuries ago when the townsmen fought off the Royalist ambush.
Main sources: ‘An Old Town Boundary’ Poole Corporation Report 1970 pp. 97-9 / ‘The History of the Borough and County of the Town of Poole’ H. P. Smith / ‘History of the Town and County of Poole’ John Sydenham.
Back in July 2014, we posted an article on this blog about Poole at the time of the Swash Channel wreck. Now with the release of the likely identification of the vessel by the wreck team (see News and video), more details can emerge.
Lying in 7-9 metres of water at the entrance to Poole harbour for nearly 400 years, the wreck has been excavated by a team from Bournemouth University. The investigation revealed a large carvel-built merchant ship of around 300-500 tons lying on her port side and broken in 2 pieces. The harbour mud had preserved the port side right up to the forecastle and stern castle rails as well as parts of the rigging. Below what would have been the waterline, the hull was covered with a layer of hair and tar sheathed with thin planking, a device used by Dutch ship builders to protect the hull from tropical ship worm. The main timbers are of Dutch or German origin and are thought to have been felled around 1628.
The number of gun ports on the ship indicates that she may have carried at least 26 guns although only 7 cast iron cannon and 1 gun carriage have been found, suggesting that many more were salvaged. There were also no signs of a cargo or of the possessions or remains of passengers, suggesting that the ship could have been operating as a warship or sailing in ballast. The many high quality carvings on the wreck around the rails and gun ports and on the rudder now on display in Poole Museum indicate an important, high status ship.
Many ships were wrecked off the Dorset coast in the early decades of the 17th century as merchants vied for the profits of long distance trade, but the most likely candidate for this wreck, based on date, location and nationality, is a vessel mentioned in the records of the Poole Admiralty Court in 1631. The court met, in theory, every year, to regulate all matters to do with the port and harbour including moorings, the channel, buoys, fishing, pilotage, pirates, felonies and shipwrecks. At the meeting on 24th June 1631 under Thomas Smedmore as Mayor and Admiral of the port the following item occurs: ‘Item: wee present that Mr Newland doth undertake for the ffleming to cleere the harbour of the wracke of the ffame of Horne castawaye before Studland, we do therefore enioyne him to place a coupple of boyes on that wracke by the first of August next on payne of forfeiting of two hundred pounds.’
This suggests that the wreck was partially submerged and dangerous to shipping entering the port. A year later it appears that this massive fine had not been effective (if in fact it had been extracted) because at the meeting of 21st May 1632 before Mayor George Skutt there was a further mention of the wreck: ‘Item we present that Mr Robert Newland the younger of the Isle of Wight hath not cleered the channel of the fflemish wracke and not placed the two boyes thereon and therefore he is enioyed to doe it viz to cleere the channel thereof and to place two boyes thereon by the xxxth of Julye next on payne of forfeiteing CCli.’
Either Newland then complied with the ruling or the ship sank into the harbour mud out of harm’s way, but no more is heard of the wreck in the records of the court.
The ship’s home port, Hoorn in North Holland on the Martermeer is about 35 km north of Amsterdam. During the 1600s, it was a major trading port, an important base for both the Dutch East India Company and the West India Company and a prosperous centre of trade. On a voyage of 1616, an explorer from Hoorn, Willem Corneliszoon Schouten, rounded the stormy tip of South America and named it Kaap Hoorn after his home town. Hoorn is also credited with developing the Dutch fluyt, a very successful type of broad beamed merchant ship with a large cargo carrying capacity.
According to High Court of Admiralty records, the Fame was not owned by a trading company but by merchants Hercules Garretson, Cornelius Vene and their associates. She set sail from Hoorn in early 1631 bound for the West Indies. Anchoring off Poole in February, perhaps to take shelter in Studland Bay, the ship was overtaken by a storm, dragged her anchor and was driven on to the sands where she began to break up. The captain Jacob Johnson Botemaker and the crew of about 45 had to abandon their splendid new vessel to the sea, but at least they managed to get ashore safely. Their survival meant that the ship was not a wreck in the legal sense and still belonged to its owners. However, the presence of such a large vessel so close to the shore was too strong a temptation for the locals. As soon as the seas subsided, small boats started to go out from Poole and other places nearby, plundering victuals, tackle, munition and whatever they could find from the ship.
The owners of the Fame were quick to petition the High Court of Admiralty for the recovery of their goods and the arrest of those responsible for plunder, but it is notable that they made no mention of a cargo. The Poole court records indicate that they also appointed Robert Newland to salvage the ship. The Newlands were an important merchant and shipbuilding family on the Isle of Wight with warehouses, yards and wharves at Newport and East Cowes, well placed to serve ships travelling out to the new settlements in the Americas. In the early seventeenth century, investment in Virginia was a fashionable business venture and Robert Newland senior was a member of a consortium to set up a plantation in the area of the James Rive under Captain Christopher Lawne. Newland was not one of the settlers but opened a new shipyard at Cowes and built a ship, the Bonnie Bess of 90 tons, to support the colonisation efforts, winning praise for his practical support of the venture: ‘This man (Mr Newland) an honest sufficient & a moste indevoring man for Virginia is he that cann & will searve you for victualling or maning or any other imployment to further ye plantacon, he is so well reported of, & his late indevors for Capt: Lawne (who had ells sunck) hath approoved him a ventrous charitable marchant…’ He was also given five shares in the Virginia Company in gratitude for his services and Robert junior acquired ‘lands and estate in Virginia’ as his will, of 1642 shows.
Besides having important contacts, the Newlands were also experienced in salvage operations. In October 1627 seven ships of the Dutch East India Company loaded with Dutch silver daalders and Spanish ‘pieces of eight’ were caught in a gale, near the Needles. One of them, the Campen, sank just south of the Needles and Robert Newland joined forces with a Dutch salvor, John Jacop Jansen, known as ‘Jacob the Diver’ to recover five cannon, 6,660kg of lead, and 2,635 coins from the ship. In 1631, Robert junior and William Newland were involved in the salvage of a wreck at Chale Bay in the south of the Isle of Wight and in 1635 William Newland would help to salvage the Bird Phoenix, wrecked in Compton Bay. Given their background and expertise, it was therefore natural for the Newlands to be called in to salvage the Fame.
It is possible that Robert Newland again joined forces with Jansen to work on the Swash Channel vessel. The Dutchman’s special skill was ‘a playne and manifest way of diving deepe under water’ to bring up ‘sunck ordinance, wrackt goods and moneys upon His Majesty’s Coastes of England and Ireland’. The precise details of salvage operations at the time are a mystery but they probably involved weakening the structure of the ship so that the hull could be forced apart to give access to the gundecks and hold. In deep water, primitive diving bells may have been used, as they were later in the century to salvage guns from the Swedish warship, Vasa. It was a difficult and potentially dangerous process. In the case of the Fame the salvors had the advantage of relatively shallow water and the fact that the vessel was already damaged by being battered on the sands.
In the absence of cargo, the most salvageable items were probably the guns, particularly bronze guns, sails and tackle, tools, instruments, victuals for the voyage and the clothing and belongings of the crew. The relatively small number of items found on the wreck suggests that the salvage process was quite thorough. Objects found in the excavation include a ceramic drug jar, leather shoes, pewter spoons, a skillet, cattle bones, barrels, the remains of a galley, ballast, a lead for sounding, a small bell and different kinds of shot, beside the 7 iron guns. Presumably these items were either of small account or inaccessible to the 17th century salvors.
Assuming that the identification of the Swash Channel wreck as the Fame of Hoorn is correct, there are still many unanswered questions about the vessel. What was the purpose of her voyage to the West Indies and what if anything was she carrying? What can she tell us about ship-building, maritime equipment and daily lives on board ship in the early 17th century? Whose image is carved on the head of the rudder? More information will emerge in the next months and years, but some questions will probably never be answered.
Main sources: Minutes of the Poole Admiralty Court DC-PL/C/F/1/1/1 (Poole and Dorset History Centres) / Will of Robert Newland 1637 PROB11/174/100 (National Archives) / Will of Robert Newland (junior) 1642 PROB/11/192/104 (National Archives) / Friel, Ian: The Mercy of the Sea: Identifying the Swash Channel Wreck 2013 Unpublished (Poole History Centre)
In the winter of 1822, storms and heavy gales out at sea took their toll of shipping and many losses were reported in the press. The brig Lester of Poole had set sail for Newfoundland on 11th October and had reached longitude 38.00 (well over half way in her voyage) when she encountered heavy gales and tremendous seas. For several days she continued beating to windward until 17th November when she sprung her bowsprit and split the sails. The master John Lander decided that there was no alternative but to turn back to Poole.
Another ship embarking on a north Atlantic voyage was the brig Mary Ann of Aberdeen which set sail from Quebec on 4th November bound for London. On Saturday 23rd November, the vessel met a severe gale and struggled on under reefed sails. Around 5 o’clock in the evening, the wildly veering ship was hit by a tremendous wave which carried away the main mast and swept her decks of ‘boats, bulwarks and every thing standing’. Captain Moore who had been at the helm was also swept overboard and drowned. Desperately clearing away the wreckage of the mast, the crew discovered that the decks were damaged and the ship was half full of water. Pumping made no impression and within an hour the vessel was totally water-logged.
The following day the situation worsened as the decks broke up and the cargo, which was mainly staves, began to wash out of the hold. By now the decks were below the surface and the mate, eleven seamen and a boy called Davidson made for the foretop, their only possible refuge. In the process, the boy was swept away and lost but the others succeeded in reaching temporary safety. Their situation however was dire. They had no water and only a few biscuits, enough for half a biscuit each for a couple of days. By Wednesday 27th November, after three days and nights, they had run out of food and just about any hope of rescue. It was then that they were spotted by the Lester on its homeward course.
The hull of the Mary Ann was totally submerged and it was something of a miracle that the crew of the Lester chanced to see her remaining mast sticking out of the water. As they sailed closer they could see the survivors still clinging on. Captain Lander resolved to save them if he could, and set about what must have been a most perilous rescue mission, given the hazardous motion of the water-logged vessel in the heavy seas and the damage already suffered by the Lester. Somehow, all twelve men were helped from the mast and transferred to the Poole ship where ‘every assistance and comfort was given them’.
The Lester reached Poole on 1st December bringing the news of the wreck and recovery. Their arrival happened to coincide with the launch in Poole of the Sailors’ Union Bethel Society, an organisation founded by the Rev. George Charles Smith, known as Bo’sun Smith. Its aim was to provide religious services and spiritual support for seamen in port. Locally the Society had the support of the Independent and Baptist churches and it was in the Baptist Chapel that the first service was held on Wednesday 4th December before a gratifyingly large congregation which included the surviving crew of the Mary Ann. During the service the Aberdeen men send a written paper to the minister asking for a public thanksgiving for their deliverance ‘in a period of the most desperate peril’.
Later, the Poole Bethel Society gave an award of humanity to Captain Lander and his crew and the owners of the Mary Ann, John Catto, Son and Co. of Aberdeen, sent 20 guineas to be divided amongst them for their exertions ‘to snatch these poor fellows from the billows which threatened every moment to overwhelm them’. A silver cup was also sent to Captain Lander from the owners, engraved with the following inscription: ‘A Tribute from the OWNERS of the BRIG MARY ANN of Aberdeen TO CAPTN JOHN LANDER of the LESTER of POOLE as a testimony of their regard for his Humane & Meritorious exertions in saving from the foretop of the wreck of the Mary Ann in the Atlantic TWELVE OF HER UNFORTUNATE CREW on the 27th November 1822’.
John Lander continued sailing from Poole as a master mariner and eventually became Harbour Master. His death in 1854 at the age of 68 was reported in the Poole and Dorset Herald for 15th June of that year. The same issue also contained an account of the wreck of the Aldebaran of Poole on a voyage to Quebec with the loss of seven men, another reminder of the perilous lives of seamen in the age of sailing ships.
Jenny Main sources – Salisbury and Winchester Journal 9th Dec 1822, 27th Jan 1823, Bell’s Weekly Messenger 8th Dec 1822, Sunday Times 15th Dec 1822, Poole and Dorset Herald 15th June 1854.